Overcoming the Roots of Sin

We often discover that when one habitual sin becomes partly or completely overcome then the deeper root of that sin is exposed. In the case of many habitual sins it is essentially pride, self-will and self-indulgence. This can be especially the case in our feelings and attitudes towards others. Sometimes people appear to be unpleasant, rude, and dismissive towards us, and we can find feelings of frustration and anger welling up inside of us. What are we to do, when we don’t really even want to pray for such a person? We can discover these feelings within us when we deal with people in all the situations and circumstances of life. At work, and at home. At school and university. In the street, on the road, and even in the Church.

It may well be that a person is difficult, rude, arrogant and filled with all manner of problems himself. This is one thing, and this may well require attention and even action to some extent. But the feelings I describe, ones which most of us have shared and faced, seem to me to be due to pride, self-will and self-pity buried within ourselves and showing us that we have not yet developed the virtue of humility which is necessary foundation of our salvation and life in Christ. How can we judge this? It is because if we had become more perfect then we would not be moved by the words or deeds of others in this way. We both know the instruction given to the monk to go and praise the dead, and then to curse them. And this is a life lesson for us. While we are moved by either the praise or insults of others then we have not become perfect – even in a relative sense of course. We should not be disturbed and shocked that we discover that after dealing with one sin, we find others hidden beneath. What is required of us is that the root of sin be cut out of our heart, and these passions and strong feelings are symptoms and expressions of the deeper roots which sin has buried in our heart.

Other people may certainly be expressing their own bondage to sinful attitudes and behaviours, but our salvation depends on our own renewal and transfiguration in the life and the grace of God by the indwelling Holy Spirit. When we focus on the sins and weaknesses of others, however real they may be, we fail to be concentrating on our own sins, and on the necessary healing which we ourselves require. Even something as simple as being infuriated by another driver on the road helps us to see how far we have yet to travel on the narrow way of life.

The fall of mankind into sin at the beginning was rooted in pride, self-will and self-indulgence. Adam and Eve were tempted with the idea that they could become like God in their own strength and apart from His Grace. They rejected the wise counsel of God and chose their own will. And they indulged themselves even to the point of bringing death upon themselves and the whole of Creation. This death has come upon us all, the experience of our natural corruption in mortality, and the separation from the life of God in darkness and despair. The heart of man swings wildly this way and that seeking a connection with the divinity that called him into being, and vainly settling upon the worship of created things, and even the worship of self, in an empty and fruitless effort to find that stability in life and light for which he was created.

At this time of the Resurrection, we remember powerfully and dramatically that Christ, the Word of God incarnate, entered his own Creation, and became one with us in the experience of mortality, so that he might destroy the power of death, and renew in us the divine life in union with God by the Holy Spirit. The priest at the altar prays for the worthy reception by the congregation of these divine and immortal mysteries that communicate to us, and allow us to participate in, the spiritual life which God shares with us. We have begun the journey into union with God, which is the fullness of life and the meaning of our humanity.

But the journey is one of a life time, and demands our wholehearted commitment. The sign of our progress on this journey is the growth of the virtues of humility, obedience and self-discipline in the grace of God. These cannot be produced on our own. If we try then we will discover that they represent only a superficial change in attitudes. As soon as we face a stressful or tempting situation we discover that we have no solid basis to our thinking and behaviour and we fall into pride, self-will and self-indulgence all over again. This is not just an unhappy sign of our weakness, but it is an indication that the power of darkness and death is still alive in us. But we should not allow this to lead us to despair. The victory of Christ, and the gift of his life by the Holy Spirit which he pours out on those who desire union with him in faith, call us always to rise up from every fall into sin, and step onward towards God, who is both with us and within us, and the end of our journey.

But we cannot draw closer to God when we are filled with pride, self-will and self-indulgence. This is impossible. Even if we attend every service, and keep every fast. St James says…

Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.

And the Psalmist David says…

The Lord lifts up the humble… He will beautify the humble with salvation… He gives grace to the humble… I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones…

And our Lord Jesus says to us…

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

These are not just wonderful words, but this is the means of salvation for us. The deep root of sin within us is found in pride, and it is only to be cut out of us by humility in the grace of God. When we consider our behaviour, thoughts and attitudes each day, we can see how we are easily moved to sin in our thoughts, words and deeds by pride, self-will and self-indulgence. We will always find ways to blame other people, or to excuse ourselves. But if we want to find salvation, union with God in the heart by the indwelling Holy Spirit, then we need to begin by addressing our self-indulgence. It is this which leads us to blame others and excuse ourselves. We overcome self-indulgence by self-discipline. We overcome the willingness to say YES to every passing pleasure and temptation by beginning to learn to say NO to ourselves.

What shall we do? We must begin to find opportunities to say NO to self. There are countless such opportunities each day. We should not imagine that learning the virtue of self-disciple is only restricted to “religious” activities and situations. When we begin to learn to say no to ourselves, then we start to progress in learning obedience. And as we grow in obedience and self-disciple, so the humility which God loves, and which attracts the Holy Spirit, develops and bears fruit.

Here is what we can do. When we are at home and asked to do something, we should stop what we are doing and immediately do as we are asked. If we are asked to clean something, or do some chore or run an errand, or drive someone somewhere, we should try not to hesitate in setting out to be obedient. We should not make excuses. We should not wait until we feel holy and obedient, but we should do the work of obedience and learn self-discipline in it. If we are at work, while there are necessary aspects of other people being responsible for their own productivity, nevertheless, we should seek to be as obedient to the requests others make of us as possible. At school and university, we should also be ready to be obedient to whatever proper request is asked of us, without complaint, to the extent that we are not engaging in or condoning wrong behaviour in others.

We must learn to say YES to what is asked of us so that we learn to say NO to ourself. We can begin today, and right now. We will start to see how resistant we are to putting ourselves second and third. But if we can observe our feelings without submitting to them then we are making progress in the will of God. Putting ourselves last is to begin to grow in humility. At first it will require great effort and will produce many difficult feelings. But doing humility is the necessary begin of becoming humble. This means learning not to talk all the time. It means not taking food first. It means allowing others to choose activities. It means no taking the microphone. It means waiting to be asked to do something we all want to do. And it means volunteering first to do the thing no one wants to do.

This might seem some distance from dealing with feelings when people upset us. But in fact the healing of that sickness requires us to take a medicine and apply a treatment that takes longer to have effect, but which will produce lasting results, and life in union with God. The feelings that we have about others are just that, feelings produced within our heart. They may or may not have a connection with reality, but they do expose the depths of our heart. To be healed from the root of sin that produces them means that we must ignore them for a while, and look and act at a deeper level. It is the one who is humble of heart who can draw near to God. To be humble requires us to learn obedience, and obedience teaches us self-discipline. It is easy to be obedient to the person we respect and want to impress. Harder to be obedient to those closest to us, or those we think little of. But it is in these circumstances that we actually learn how much progress we have made.

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